On April 30th, I turned 49. I mean, for real, 49. This isn't one of those "I'm really 50 but I can't face it" 49's. I have one more year before I hit the big 5-0. And I have goals. On my birthday, I got out a piece of poster board and some markers and I made a giant chart. I divided it up into categories: Body, Mind, Spirit, Professional Development. I listed things I'm going to discipline myself to do in all those categories. Maybe someday I'll share more of those, but for today, I'll just mention my list included books I'm going to read and blogs I'm going to write. Here's one of those books and one of those blogs.
Astrid Lindgren: The Woman Behind Pippi Longstocking
By Jens Andersen
Started May 1. Finished May 5.
The story of Pippi Longstocking always resonated with me – so much so, that when I got my first apartment, having divorced and moved out on my own for the first time at the age of 47, I named my apartment "Villa Villekulla." To me, Pippi represented: "I can do it myself. I am OK. If other people let me down, I can make it on my own."
Identifying with Pippi was a comfort to me as a child – imagining myself happy and strong. Honestly, those are two characteristics that I have always fiercely pursued: happiness and strength -- or perhaps resilience symbolized by strength. As a child, then a young wife, a young mother of five small children, a mother of teens, a woman in her thirties, then in her forties -- I have always protected my joy. My happiness. I demanded it of myself. I fought for it and sacrificed for it.
That may sound selfish, to fight for one's own happiness, but I don't believe it is. As I read the biography of Astrid Lindgren, I saw the story of another woman in another time on another continent who was very much like me. She was a woman who clung to her joy, preserved her childlikeness, and guarded the spirit of playfulness, even in the midst of becoming the most prestigious children's author in the world in her time. I think Astrid would agree with me when I say the choice to be happy is not a choice we make for ourselves. It is a gift we give to our children and to the other people in our lives. To be happy and strong is something we do for others at least as much as it is for ourselves.
Astrid was an unwed teen mother in a small religious town in Sweden in the 1920s. What could have been more scandalous? She had to leave home to have her son in Denmark, where there would be no legal documentation of the birth father's name. (He was a prestigious, older, married man in her town.) At 19, she had to put her son in foster care, live on her own, and support herself. She did this for several years, then finally, one day, she just plain went home. She took her five year old son's hand and held her head high as she walked down the streets of her home town, ignoring the stares, the whispers, and the gasps. Eventually, she said, all these seemed to be replaced by respect. She was doing what no one had ever dared do before. She was living her life honestly in full view. And she was not ashamed.
Astrid's philosophy of parenting matched my own exactly. She believed children are complete persons, not clay for us to mold. She pasted into her journal a quote by Kahlil Gibrand (The Prophet, 1923), which I wish I had written myself:
"Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls.
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday."
Astrid was not just a children's author. She published scores of books across genres, in addition to building a career as a journalist, an editor, and later in her life as a political activist in the causes of feminism, environmentalism, and government reform. She was a popular radio show guest, columnist, and public speaker. But she was also fun. Her grandchildren and nieces and nephews recall her as one of the only adults they ever encountered who really knew how to play. But this was a choice. Her life was not easy, and many things threatened her joy over the years. But she did not let sorrow and fear engulf her spirit. She stayed happy and strong until the very end, when a stroke weakened her and her body finally wound down and stopped.
What inspires me about Astrid is she squeezed as much as anyone could out of life. She worked hard, but played hard too. It is this work/play, accomplishment/relationship balance that I admire and I strive for in my own life. I am ambitious, driven, motivated, goal and task oriented in many ways. However, my relationships are my utmost priority. I cultivate my relationships with my adult children with as much diligence as I develop a college course and teach it. Astrid stayed in touch, maintaining a small number of intimate adult friendships for decade after decade, faithfully writing letters and visiting when the opportunity arose. She carried on correspondence with fans who wrote her letters, if she felt they were sincere and she could do them any good. She poured time and energy into individuals, while also accomplishing so much that was en masse.
That is important to me as well. I want to stay close to my family, cultivate lifelong intimate friendships with a few, and be available to those whose lives I might enrich. But I also want to be tireless, passionate about my work, fires blazing in my belly about any worthy cause, until I am near the day of my death. I want to care about more things more deeply and do more good as the years go by. Astrid did that. My own grandmother, who is 98 years old and from Astrid's same generation did that, and I want to do that, too.
Having read this biography, I now understand why Pippi's story was so influential in my life. I always knew there had to be more drawing me to Pippi than her strong arms, anarchist spirit, pet monkey, and ramshackle mansion. Now I know it was the spirit and example of the author reaching out to me, affirming me -- a little girl in the 70s, wearing mismatched clothes, desperate to be my sometimes-naughty self, frowned upon by so many grownups, hell-bent on being happy.